maui chocolate tour: savoring the ‘food of the gods’

Did you know chocolate dates back to 1900 B.C. when ancient Mesoamericans fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans into a paste that they mixed with water, vanilla, honey, chili peppers, and other spices to brew a frothy chocolate drink? I didn’t either, until I attended the Maui Chocolate Tour and Workshop, a tasty and informative off-the-beaten path experience on an authentic cacao and vanilla farm in Huelo.

The tour and workshop were developed by Melanie Boudar, a master chocolatier who started Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea, co-owns The Art of Chocolate/Cacao Santa Fe in New Mexico, and serves on the board of the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. Lead tour guide Ann Tuomela has been extensively involved in the cheese and wine industry doing catering and tastings. Her love of food has led her to the complexities of chocolate. She is assisted by Kathy Tobin, who has served in the tourism industry. The farm itself is owned by Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane, who also operate Maya Yoga Studio on the property.

“Cacao can only grow on Maui in specific microclimates, such as what we have here in Huelo,” Ann tells us. “You’ll never see it growing in the central valley because it’s too hot, dry, and windy there.” “Cacao in Hawai‘i is typically grown on small farms such as this one, with an average of eight to fifteen trees on a half acre,” adds Kathy.

We follow Ann and Kathy to the farm’s cacao trees, which are encircled by wire mesh to protect them from the wind as well as the Japanese rose beetle, which is their greatest threat in Hawai‘i. “It can take as long as three years before a cacao tree produces fruit,” says Kathy. Surrounding the cacao trees are gliricidia trees, which add nourishing nitrogen to the soil. “In Spanish-speaking countries, the gliricidia tree is known as ‘madre de cacao,’ or ‘mother of cacao,’” she says.

We walk to a shaded gathering place where Ann and Kathy have set up a demonstration table upon which some interesting items have been placed, like a Crankandstein cocoa mill and a meat grinder, which Ann assures us has never been used for its intended purpose. Kathy passes around a bowl containing roasted beans so we can all have a taste. It’s like a nut you crack open in your mouth, and the inside is known as the “cocoa nib.” It tastes pleasantly toasty and chocolatey.

Kathy runs some cacao beans through the Crankandstein two times to loosen the husks and crush the beans a bit. The next step is known as winnowing, and Kathy uses a fan to blow the remaining husks off the beans. “Large chocolate manufacturers like Hershey press the cocoa butter out of the nibs and sell it to cosmetic companies,” Kathy says. “But artisan chocolatiers retain the cocoa butter for a creamier product.”

Kathy uses the meat grinder to release the cocoa butter from the nibs, and the resulting substance has a consistency similar to peanut butter. Kathy explains she will be using this substance to create a drink much like what the ancient Aztecs drank. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and the seeds once had so much value they were used as a form of currency; hence chocolate’s nickname, “Food of the Gods.” Kathy adds allspice, pepper, cinnamon, and vanilla, and blends the mixture utilizing a wooden whisk from Mexico called a molinillo. She adds boiling water, and voila—a delicious “hot chocolate” for our drinking pleasure!

With our palates hungering for more, we head into the tasting room, where Ann and Kathy have set each place at the table with a Chocolate Tasting Wheel illustrating a flavor vocabulary for chocolate, and notes for today’s tasting. We each have a small wooden vessel in front of us containing four foil-wrapped chocolate morsels.

Our first sample is an Ecuadorian chocolate bar processed by Guittard in California. “This is what’s called a ‘couverture chocolate,’ meaning it’s produced for chocolatiers, pastry chefs, and cake makers because of its smooth and creamy texture,” Ann tells us. “Chocolatiers take couverture chocolate and add ingredients like mango or passion fruit to take it to the next level. It’s like a ‘baseline’ chocolate.” Our tasting notes reveal that Ecuador is one of the largest, most reliable producers of cacao outside of West Africa, supplying some of the most quintessential chocolate on the market.

Madagascar has been growing cacao since 1904, and has become an important source of fine flavor cacao beans. Our next sample was produced by Dandelion Chocolate, also in California. It mingles tart, citrus essences with hints of nuts, along with a deep, rich chocolate flavor.

The next stop on our around-the-world chocolate tour is Venezuela, with a single-origin chocolate produced by Valrhona of France. The northern coastal valleys of Venezuela boast dark, rich soil, which results in some of the finest chocolate in the world. This particular sample balances warm raisin and chestnut notes with liquorice notes that linger pleasantly on the tongue.

Vietnam is a relative newcomer to the cacao and chocolate scene, although French colonists planted the first trees in the 1800s. Vietnamese chocolate is produced in the Dong Nai and Ben Tre provinces of South Vietnam. Our sample was processed in country by craft chocolate maker Marou, and boasts cherry notes with an earthy background.

Kathy fills our wooden vessels with three more pieces of foil-wrapped chocolates, and we come full circle back to Hawai‘i with our next sample, which was processed by Manoa Chocolate on O‘ahu with cacao grown on Colin Hart’s Wai‘alae Falls Farm in Hilo. Hart has more than 700 trees, and he harnesses the natural force of a waterfall on his property to help power his farm.

Grower Gini Choobua’s farm, Likao Kula, is situated at 1,600 feet elevation above the Kona Coast on Hawai‘i Island. Her cacao is processed by Madre Chocolate on O‘ahu, and the bar we are sampling brought home a silver medal at the most recent International Chocolate Festival. “That’s really big kudos for a cacao producer out here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” comments Ann. Its flavor notes include gooseberry, peach, currants, marzipan, and Brazil nut.

“We’ve saved the best for last,” Ann declares. “This is Melanie’s [Boudar—workshop content developer] chocolate. This batch was fermented right here on Maui in Kihei. The sugar content is quite low, so this is the type of chocolate that provides numerous health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease.”

For the grand finale, we sample truffles from Sweet Paradise Chocolatier in Wailea, the store Melanie founded. Although Melanie sold the store a couple of years ago, the new owner still uses her truffle recipes. There are three flavors—raspberry, passion fruit, and pineapple-habanero—and they are absolutely delectable!

To cleanse our palates after having been thoroughly “chocolatized,” Ann and Kathy place bowls of juicy bright yellow Maui Gold pineapple and glistening red watermelon slices on the table.

It’s been a fun and flavorful morning in the jungle experiencing the Maui Chocolate Tour and Workshop. As the great cartoonist Charles M. Schultz once said: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

–heidi pool



Maui Chocolate Tour and Workshop, where participants see live cacao trees; learn how they grow, are harvested and processed; and partake in a multi-chocolate tasting and educational experience. Cost is $69 for adults; $49 for ages 13-17; $25 for ages 7-12. The tour is not recommended for keiki under the age of 7.


At a small demonstration farm and cacao education center located in Huelo, near the beginning of the Road to Hana. Directions to the farm are given upon booking.


Tours are approximately 2 hours in length, and are offered Sunday & Thursday at 10am and 4pm.


Reservations are required please visit:

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